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Congregation Beth El grew out of a simple question raised by a small group of friends in 1944: “Isn’t it time for a city the size of Berkeley to have a Reform Jewish congregation?” The group included Rabbi Joseph Gitin (then Berkeley Hillel’s rabbi) and Rosalie Gitin, Dr. Alexander Levens (then professor of mathematics and Vice Chancellor for Students at UC Berkeley) and Ethel Levens, Bob and Ruth Fischer, and Raphael and Frieda Silver. The four couples did not realize that their question would become the foundation for establishing Congregation Beth El.
The founding group decided to assess the interests of the community by convening an exploratory meeting of Berkeley’s Jewish residents—but how to reach them? Fortunately, Bob Fischer was the current secretary for the B’nai B’rith Lodge with access to the only available list of Berkeley Jews. Since most of the names on the list were Berkeley merchants, the conveners scheduled a meeting after the busy winter holiday season in January 1945.

The response to the community-wide invitation was stunning with nearly 100 people attending the Odd Fellows Hall next to the Hotel Shattuck (now called Hotel Shattuck Plaza). The meeting generated an outpouring of enthusiastic support and offers of books.  Most significantly, about 65 individuals made monetary pledges.

The new congregation called itself Temple Beth El and held its first services, in 1945, at the First Unitarian Church on Bancroft. With the strong support of its pastor, The Reverend Raymond Cope gave the new congregation free use of the building for five years. During this period High Holiday services were held at the Twentieth Century Club on Derby Street.

The congregation also benefited from the support of Rabbi Gitin as its first spiritual leader and volunteer leader since there were no funds to pay him. Rabbi Gitin’s warm personality and informal ways were highly valued by the members of the young congregation. Robert Fischer liked to tell the story about Rabbi Gitin’s interpretation of 1940’s Reform Judaism.  “He made religion palatable. He wasn’t a strict conformist. I remember how on Rosh Hashanah afternoon we played poker at his house. He said that Yom Kippur was the sad holiday. Rosh Hashanah was the happy one and we should have fun after we go to services.”

From the beginning, Beth El faced significant challenges including the dilemma of whether to use the limited funds to hire a rabbi or construct a synagogue. The fledgling congregation soon needed to do both when Rabbi Gitin left to serve a congregation in Stockton, California. Rabbi Leo Trepp took his place in 1947, becoming Beth El’s first salaried rabbi. A recent Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Trepp had been imprisoned in Sachsenhausen, the main concentration camp for Berlin. During his three-year term he helped the congregation integrate the sizeable émigré population with those families having lived in Berkeley decades earlier.At about the same time that Rabbi Trepp arrived, the congregation began planning for the construction of its own building and purchased the site at the corner of Arch and Vine in 1950. On March 11, 1951 the building was dedicated as Temple Beth El and Community Center. The name reveals how the congregation viewed itself as both a spiritual home and a center for Reform Jewish life.

Confirmation Class 1948; Rabbi Joseph Gitten; First Unitarian Church on Bancroft
(from left to right) Walter Kaufman, Merwyn Brossler, Ellen Finkel, Rabbi Joseph Gitin, Ursula Goldschmidt and Albert Goldschmidt. (Albert was a year younger than the rest of the group, but was in this confirmation class because there were not enough students his age to make up another class.)

Following the first service held in 1945, it took a full six years to build a membership of 120 families. No one foresaw that the synagogue would reach its capacity of 250 families in the next 25 years. In 1958 the congregation purchased the adjoining land for a classroom building, dedicated in 1960. Not everyone in the congregation approved this rapid expansion. However the significant growth in the Jewish community eventually validated the wisdom of this risk. Another major challenge became the increasingly diverse spectrum of belief in the Jewish community, from Orthodox to Reform Judaism. Congregants felt strongly about the importance of meeting the needs of this diverse community and respecting tradition. The founders expressed this deeply held belief in the preamble of the by-laws. This Reform congregation would require the wearing of a yarmulke and tallit when participating on the bima. On the other hand new practices were included, such as having unassigned seating at High Holiday services.

A copy of the Articles of Incorporation of Congregation Beth El, filed in 1945 reveal how the synagogue viewed its mission in the early days. It lists the following purposes:

  • The promotion of religious, educational and charitable purposes according to the doctrines and teachings of the Jewish faith.
  • To purchase, acquire and hold suitable real estate to carry out the purposes for which this corporation is formed, and to purchase acquire, and hold suitable real estate for the burial of the dead.  
  • To create a perpetual care fund for the future care, management and supervision of the cemetery.

One key to Congregation Beth El’s ability to build a new synagogue and add new classrooms nine years later was the willingness of congregants to donate large amounts of money. Direct appeals were usually met with a generous response. Despite these successes, the synagogue faced neighborhood opposition to expanding in a residential area. Concerns primarily centered on parking and traffic. In addition to substantial efforts to address their concerns, Berkeley’s Mayor Lawrence Cross (also pastor of the Northbrae Community Church) publicly and enthusiastically supported the development of the new building.

The early founders of Beth El viewed their work less as an act of courage and more as an exercise of youthful exuberance guided by a core set of values. As founder Bob Fischer stated, “We cared about being Reform Jews and building a synagogue was a reflection of those values. We did what we felt was best at the time.”

Sat, February 4 2023 13 Sh'vat 5783